Guiding the spirit behind the bar

Interview with Max Scott.

Max Scott doesn’t just “know” about the industry. He was born into it. Raised in the family’s restaurant in Sweden, he grew up knowing the ins and outs of the back of the house. But later in life, his career would take him from food and big kitchens to booze, bars and even bootlegging. Since he first joined Juul’s Vin & Spiritus eight years ago, he has helped to take the company from a small, whiskey-focused family business to one of the biggest fine wine and spirits importers in Scandinavia. For the past two Bartender’s Choice Awards –the most prestigious bar and restaurant awards in the Nordics – he has been named Biggest Improver of the industry in Denmark. And if you ask around, chances are the bartender will know who he is (if not, it may be an indication to get up and leave).

We met with Max (over a pint of rum, of course) to talk about the future of Denmark’s spirits industry – and the bartenders who reside within.

How did you become involved with the spirits industry in Denmark?

I actually come from a kitchen background. I am born and raised in my family’s restaurant in Sweden, where I have been working since I was seven years old. So, I guess the restaurant-bar-alcohol industry is the only thing I know.

I was working for an import company in Sweden, but after a while I got bored. I have been collecting whiskeys for 25 years or so and was buying a lot of my stuff from Juul’s. I really liked the place, so when I decided to leave Sweden, it was the place wanted to work at. When I came to Juul’s they welcomed me almost like a family member – perhaps because I had already spent so much money there *laughs*.

You were recently named the biggest influencer in the bar industry in Denmark for the second year in a row. How do you feel about that?

It is nice to be known and I am super happy about that. But I am not working in order to get an award. Of course, when people say that I am doing a good job, I am grateful. I think that all the people that have been nominated should have won the award. Things are changing a lot in Denmark. I think I am lucky to have been here during that change with a lot of new cocktail bars and new products. And I have also been part of the change within the company itself and reinventing what Juul’s is about, going from a whiskey specialist to introducing other things that we didn’t have before. And then I guess I have just become friends with a lot of guys and girls that are making drinks.

Can you see a change in the spirits industry and how people drink?

Yes, it is massive. I think it is changing too much, to be honest. I am quite a conservative drinker and I think the old stuff is the best. I don’t think we need all this innovation. Even though it could be good, and a lot of things are happening, and it is also making drinking interesting. You can go to a bar every day in person or follow their Instagram and find new stuff. Not everything is going to survive in the future but it is a very interesting business to watch as it develops.

Do you think the rise of craft spirits has had an influence?

I don’t think the word should be used so lightly… I don’t know what “craft” is, to be honest…most of the spirits people are consuming are far away from being “craft”.

What about mezcal, wouldn’t you call that craft?

Yes, but we are changing that as well to become an industry.

I think everybody wants craft in whatever you work with, we all have affection for “hand-made”. But most producers claiming to be craft are not. There are very few products where you can truly say “this is hand-made”. And craft doesn’t necessarily mean go hand in hand with quality. I have tried several craft distillers’ products, and most of them are really bad in my opinion. But it is sort of romantic, knowing that something is hand-produced, and I think that is what people like. 

How is the cocktail scene developing in Denmark?

I think it has changed a lot. When Kirsten Holm (owner of K-Bar) and Peter Altenburg (owner of Gilt) opened their bars some 15 years ago, they started the whole thing. Then all the bartenders came from the UK. Since then, the scene has just been evolving and getting more people from around the world. It is quite a unique industry, and the main, big difference between us and other cities is that you can actually make a good amount of money being a bartender. You don’t have to work seven days per week, you can have a life. And that makes it possible to have new bartenders coming from big cocktail cities like Paris because they can have a better lifestyle. You can’t have that in London.

How does that make Copenhagen different from other “cocktail capitals”?

We still see the “soul” of the industry opening their own places, which is really important and, I think, a good thing. If you look at the good cocktail bars in Copenhagen, they are privately owned by bartenders themselves, which we should be very proud of. That is one reason why this city has such an amazing industry compared to a lot of other cities because most other places you will be employed by a company or enterprise. That doesn’t mean other cities are bad, but it means the Copenhagen cocktail scene is run by people who are passionate and love what they do.

In such a small city, do you think there is enough space for new bars?

Yes, if they are good. Nowadays, you can’t open another cocktail bar that is just “okay”. You have to have a concept that is different, so people will choose you over your competition. I have always thought the cocktail trend would only last a few years, but it isn’t changing. And our city is growing every day, so of course, there are going to be more guests as well. But, it is a necessity for people who are dreaming of owning their own bar in the future to have a grand plan.

What are the spirit trends for 2019?

Bars will always follow the main trends around the world. In Denmark, I think it will stay the same. Agave spirits are growing, but it is still a niche bartender thing, ordinary people aren’t going to be run their weekends on tequila-tonics. Of course, vermouth and the low-ABV trend is here to stay. Love it or hate it, but I think it is really going to grow, I think we are going to see more non-alcoholic spirits and a lot more aperitifs. And customers will ask for it.

What about Nordic and local Danish spirits?

I really want to see some more Nordic flavours! And bartenders in Denmark to take local produce a little more seriously. Take for example aquavit – everyone should put an aquavit drink on the menu. But that is an ongoing battle that I myself am a part of. If we in the industry don’t start taking it seriously, if we don’t start putting aquavit drinks on the menu and start consuming it ourselves, then we can’t have this idea that maybe it is one day going to become a trend outside of Denmark.

There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about the kind of media attention we are (or aren’t) receiving –  what do you think should be done? 

Start talking. Mainstream media nowadays don’t do the same style of classic journalism they did before. We (the Danish cocktail scene) have to get more attention from abroad by creating something that is unique. Something local and Danish, or at least we should work more with restaurants that have been doing very well and are getting the media attention through them. We have actually done a huge mistake by not jumping into the momentum Nordic gastronomy is enjoying – we should have been a part of that.

The link between kitchens and bars has historically not been very good, especially in Denmark. In regards to licensing, it was never a rule that you must to have a kitchen in order to have a cocktail bar. In the beginning, we all thought that was very liberating, but now we can see that perhaps it wasn’t so good after all as we missing the gastronomic inspiration in bars. I also think there is still a taboo about consuming alcohol. It is easier to go to a restaurant and have a few drinks with food, rather than just going to a bar and ask for seven different drinks. I think that bars and restaurants have to go together to force the media to write about us more.

What do you think individuals can do?

I think there are a lot of different forums that we are using, like Cocktails of Copenhagen, where you guys are getting things out. And Copenhagen Cocktail Club is trying to raise awareness and share what it is we are actually doing. 5-10 years ago, it was a bit more innocent, everybody knew each other, you even knew the bar back. Now the cocktail scene has been growing. We have to talk more on social media and be better at sharing our knowledge about what people in the industry are doing.

Follow Max’s last advice and let us know on Facebook or Instagram about what you think. Who should we interview next? Credits where they are due: lead photo by Alexandre Archimbaud, featured photo from Max’s personal archive. Are you up for another inspiring interview? Try the one with Robyn Cleveland and see how they distill akvavit in the States.

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Erwan Le Bonniec
After 12 years experience in the service industry as a bartender/bar manager in restaurants, cocktail bars, and clubs, I recently finished my Bachelor degree in Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Today I'm the Managing Partner of a Wine and Champagne cocktail bar in the heart of Copenhagen.